- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the mid-1960s, I was a boy in Oregon and my maternal grandmother (“Nana”) used to regale me with fantastic stories. I would sit with rapt attention at her kitchen table for what seemed like hours as she painted vivid pictures with her words as she cooked on her wood-burning stove.

Among the lot, one particular story has stayed with me for all my years. Stories are just words. Anyone can weave a “tall tale.” But this story was different — because she claimed to have physical proof to back up her lavish description of the events that happened 100 years previously.

She claimed that one of our distant relatives, James Brown, was a Union officer during the Civil War and that one morning, as Capt. Brown was shaving, he was being watched a long ways away — by a Rebel sniper. At the exact moment when Brown’s jaw was fully open — his face covered in shaving cream and a straight razor in one hand — the sniper squeezed his trigger.

The bullet traveled through one side of Capt. Brown’s cheek and exited clean out the other side. Without missing a beat, Capt. Brown took the corks from two whiskey bottles, twisted them into the holes in his cheeks, finished shaving, put on his uniform coat, then marched off with his unit.

Her “proof” was inside an old red dress box from the Charles F. Berg department store. The box smelled funny. She said that, to prevent moth damage, the contents of the box had been liberally sprinkled with broken cigars.

My eyes grew in size as she carefully removed the contents of the box and held it up before me. It was a blue wool cavalry coat with brass buttons . I then checked the box for the life-saving corks — no luck. I was rather disappointed, but, nonetheless, the coat was pretty cool.

After that I was set for life when it came to “show and tell” at school. I remember carrying the box on the school bus. And when I got to school, I would actually put the coat on and model it for my classmates. But this was the mid-1960s, and people did stuff like that then; probably not so much now.

Fast forward to 1995 and my immediate family have all moved to Northern Virginia. My father is retired from the Naval Investigative Service and has spent his leisure time following the Redskins and completing woodworking projects. And then he became interested in genealogy.

The red box was upstairs on a shelf in the linen closet. It didn’t take long for Dad to dig into our family history.

His background as a crack government investigator bodes well. In short order, my phone rings at work. He tells me he has found some information down at the National Archives. I’m all ears as the facts begin to pour out.

James Moore Brown was born on March 7, 1828, in Paterson, N.J. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, he helped organize and was commissioned as captain of Company K, 7th Regiment, New Jersey Volunteers.

On May 3, 1862 he was seriously wounded during the battle at Williamsburg. Hmmm … no details. Could this be the “shaving shooting”?

On June 24, 1885, James M. Brown first petitioned the Pensions Commission for an increase in his $15-a-month government pension. Within that group of documents is a letter, written by his wife, Adeline Brown, who described how, as her husband aged, his condition worsened and that he deserved an increase in his pension.

Many of the photocopied pages were affidavits, muster rolls and casualty sheets culled from various sources and not very interesting. Then Dad got to the Examining Surgeon’s Certificate, dated 1871, which included a hand drawing of my great-great-grandfather complete with an arrow illustrating the bullet’s trajectory as it passed through Capt. Brown’s mouth. Now we’re getting somewhere. I couldn’t wait to get home that night and study that page.

Upon reading the surgeon’s report, it became obvious that Nana’s version of the story was somewhat “romanticized.” The musket ball did enter the cheek — but then it struck teeth, tongue, gums and shattered the opposite jaw prior to exiting on the right side of his head. (Messy, to say the least. Plus he had to live in chronic pain for another 44 years.)

At that time, he was assigned to Patterson’s Brigade, Hooker’s Division, Third Corps. After the wounding, he was treated at a hospital at Yorktown, Va., and later at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City.

After seven months of recovery, he was promoted and assigned as a major with the 15th New Jersey Volunteers.

On Dec. 13, 1862, Maj. Brown was severely wounded again when he was struck in the right thigh at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He was treated at Barnard House on the Rappahannock River and was later moved to Alexandria. Since no beds were available, he was furloughed and treated elsewhere.

On Feb. 26, 1863, he resigned his commission due to the severity of his wounds and received an honorable discharge from the Army. He was then appointed by the president to be provost marshal of the 4th Congressional District of New Jersey, a position he held until the close of the war.

Maj. Brown died on Sept. 19, 1906 while residing at 918 1st St. NW in Washington and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 22 in Section 3, grave 1655.

During the process of reading all the documentation that my father, Louis B. Herder, had gathered, I paused on one quote from Maj. Brown that he used to close a letter to the commissioner of pensions in 1885. “I did my duty, like a man, I would do so again under the same circumstances.”

Now it’s 2008 and I’m a father, and my children have studied the Civil War. Once again the coat has hit the “show and tell” circuit, but this time it gets the “white glove” treatment and the students are not allowed to touch it. I told them the story, as I knew it, and they were pretty impressed.

As I was pulling together the information for this submission, I decided to go online to research both the 7th and 15th New Jersey Volunteer Regiments one final time. I was more than pleased to find a book titled “Give It to Them, Jersey Blues!” authored in 1998 by John Hayward. In its general index there are half a dozen references to “Brown, James M.,” plus an illustration on page 176. My father had done his research in 1996 and missed this well-written book by two years.

Here is Mr. Hayward’s description of the events leading up to Capt. Brown being wounded at the battle of Williamsburg:

“During the lull on the front, many Jersey boys wanted to leave the ranks and go into the woods to gather up their wounded and missing comrades. Captain Brown, Co. K, kept his men in line by promising that he would search the woods himself. …

“There was a commotion down the 7th’s line and Carman, bidding good luck to Van Leer, hurried towards it. Captain Brown was being dragged out of the woods bleeding profusely from his face. He had been shot in the jaw just below his ear while looking for Watkins and his tongue was nearly severed. Sergeant Ferris killed the rebel who shot Brown and then carried the Captain in. When they reached the line Brown was sent to the rear at once. A shrill Rebel yell rang out in the woods.”

Monday, Feb. 18, 2008, was Presidents Day, and my wife, Kelly, and I took the kids to Arlington National Cemetery to pay our respects for the first time to Maj. Brown and to my parents — who were both World War II veterans and rest, as well, at Arlington.

In summary, I encourage everyone to research the seemingly crazy stories that every family seems to have. Mine ended differently than it started, but along the way I learned a lot about history and my family.

Stuart Herder of Alexandria is a stay-at-home dad and a barbecue swami.

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